Elizabeth Gilbert’s Novel of Botanical Exploration




When I ran into Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the megahit Eat, Pray, Love and five other books, at a party earlier this year, she wanted to talk about only one thing: botany. Her new novel, The Signature of All Things, was working its way to publication and I could tell that she was still deeply engaged in the world of nineteenth-century botanical exploration in which the book is set.

The novel spans the life of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to a plant explorer who got wealthy in the quinine trade. It’s set mostly in Philadelphia, but Alma’s interest in botany gives the book its wide-ranging, global scope.

The novel has just been released and we have a copy to give away.  Just post a comment for a chance to win.  As for the rest of you, this is THE holiday gift for the plant lover in your life.  It’s a beautiful, sprawling novel of Victorian-era science and the lives of botanists—both real and fictional—who chased plants and knowledge around the world.

elizabeth gilbert

Elizabeth was nice enough to chat with me about the book before she left for her monster book tour, which might take her to a city near  you.

AS:  OK, so let’s talk about moss, Alma Whittaker’s area of expertise.  Why moss, and at what point did you decide it would be moss?

EG:  I knew I wanted to write about botanical exploration, I knew I wanted to write about a woman, and I wanted from the beginning to explore the idea of a woman who had limitless intellect and incredible resources, but could not travel.

So Alma can’t go to Madagascar. She can’t do what the great male botanists of the day would have done.  I wanted to find something for her to study that was both plentiful and invisible to everyone else.  I had the idea of moss right away, and once I began looking into it, I realized how dead-on right that was.  It’s a universe in miniature.  It’s forests, it’s jungle, it’s everything you can find in Madagascar but on a very, very tiny scale.  It was something she could study her entire life without leaving a one-mile radius of her home.

I also wanted to know:  Could somebody studying something that small and detailed come to the same conclusions about natural selection as the great men who were studying the great megafloras?  Would she ask the same questions they were asking?

Also, I think this was emblematic of women’s lives throughout most of history— that women’s work tends to be miniaturized.  Moss felt like the botanical equivalent of needlepoint, or any of the things that women have done to keep their boredom at bay and keep their creativity going.


AS:  And was there a person who really did that work on moss at that time?  When did moss really get its full treatment in the botanical literature?

EG:  It wasn’t really until later in the Victorian era that mosses became kind of sexy.  When Alma realizes that this is ground that no one has trodden upon, that’s kind of accurate—there were a few people dallying around with moss, but it mostly didn’t happen until later.

There was a woman named Elizabeth Gertrude Britton, who along with her husband helped found the New York Botanical Garden. She was an extraordinary bryologist, and she carried the title Curator of Mosses. She was so much later—she lived into the 20th century—but I went and read her papers at NYBG and borrowed a lot of her work and thinking for Alma, but Alma was a good seventy years earlier.

AS:  That’s great that you had access to her papers, and had someone like that to look to as a model.

Yes, she really commanded a lot of respect from her botanical peers, and was kind of an intimidating figure.  Which gets to another lead I was going to follow in the novel but didn’t. Initially, I wanted it to be a book about a woman who had a tremendous intellect and a great deal to offer, but the world wasn’t ready to hear it from a woman.  But I started doing research about 18th and 19th century female botanists, and I realized that wasn’t a very plausible story, because there were a  lot of women botanists who were really well-regarded, and who made contributions and published and traveled.  You read Darwin’s letters to Mrs. Mary Treat, who lived in New Jersey and was an expert on swamp plants, and he writes to her peer-to-peer, completely.  It’s not at all patronizing.  I thought it would be kind of disgraceful to those actual female botanists if I wrote about this woman who can’t get any torque in life because she’s a woman.

AS:   And instead, the barriers that Alma faced were her own barriers, from her own life, not from society at large.

EG: I think it’s better, novelistically, if your character’s barriers are their own personality. What stopped Alma from being put forward more broadly in the world was not discrimination. To the contrary, she had all kinds of support.  It was her perfectionism that held her back.  That’s also a story I find interesting.  I’ve long been of the opinion that what does hold women back is their own perfectionism, and this idea that “until the thing I’m trying to create is immaculate, then I don’t dare open my voice about it.”  Whenever I’m talking to young writers, I warn them against that self-censorship that says “I can’t put this forward because it’s not good enough yet.”  Those are the things that held Alma back, not her gender.

AS:  I’m curious about who else in the book is real, apart from people like Joseph Banks.

EG:  I think Banks and Alfred Russel Wallace are the only walk-on characters with speaking roles who are real.  Some might have been composites, or loosely based on someone, but that’s about all.

I did get really mental with the research, though.  I was intimidated with the scope of what I’d taken on, and I really wanted to be as accurate as I could be. I started with the idea that I wanted to write about 19th century botany, that that’s ten lifetimes of research right there.

I spent three years doing nothing but reading all day.  I traveled to botanical gardens and they opened their libraries to me, and scouted some locations, but mostly I just read. I read not just botany but letters, housewives’ diaries, anything that would give me a sense of the language of the day.

The thing I find really compelling about about 19th century science is that it is the last point in history when an amateur could sort of follow what was going on. I’ve heard it said that Origin of Species was the last major scientific work that a relatively educated person would read and understand.  It was the last moment when people who were literate were following, from their armchairs, everything that was going on the scientific world.  There were passionate amateurs who would still contribute.

I felt like I could access that.  I couldn’t write about the 21st century world of science because I would be found out!  Even scientists don’t know what’s going on outside their field today—you can’t possibly keep up. But in the 19th century, they had it all.  They could know everything there was to know.  That was fun and exciting.

AS:  Did you interview any modern moss scientists?

EG:  I did.  The line “moss is water made visible” was something that was told to me by a woman named Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer who wrote a book called Gathering Moss that was kind of a bible for me. She’s both a passionate moss scientist and a beautiful writer.  I went on a pilgrimage to visit her—she was the last expert I spoke to before I started writing. I needed her blessing to see if what I was proposing that Alma would learn in the moss world was possible or plausible.  So I sat at her kitchen table and told her the entire novel in an hour and asked her if it made sense, and if it seemed like something somebody could do, and she said, “Yeah! Sure! Why not?”

But her line, that moss is water made visible, is something I carry with me whenever I see moss.  It does show you where the water is, what the pitch of the land is, and where the water is going.


Post a comment!  Win a book!  Or buy a copy yourself from your favorite local bookseller.

And by the way, here’s a video about the inspiration for the book and its location in Philadelphia:



  1. I am not usually a fan of books that mix real historical figures like Joseph Banks with fictional ones, but this sounds interesting to me for several reasons. I do enjoy a well written historical novel, and, more importantly, I have mosses growing several places in my garden, and wondered why they were there when I also have quite a bit of sun. The “water made visible” concept is intriguing. I would like to win this book.

  2. “I spent three years doing nothing but reading all day”. Why, I believe Ms. Gilbert just described Nirvana! Or at least, wintertime Nirvana!

  3. I just requested Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss at my library. And they have the Signature of All Things on order 🙂

  4. I want to read this…if my library doesn’t have it, I’ll have to purchase it–unless I am lucky enough to win it.

  5. As a female botanist and a bookworm, I was SO excited to hear about this new book. Can’t wait to read it!

  6. Personally, I think “Curator of Mosses” is a wonderful job title! If only someone had told me, back in Fourth Grade, that there was such a job title, I wonder if my life would have gone in a different direction.

    I’d love a copy of the book!

  7. One has to wonder, if women were included and known in the field back in the day, why haven’t we heard more about them? Where are the historians and biographers to put these women out into our view (and perhaps inspire young women to follow in their footsteps)?

    You can bet I look forward to reading this book!

  8. I am a long time lover of moss. When I was young and got my first SLR camera, I spent hours taking close up pictures of moss. So many mosses do look like miniature forests.
    I just ordered Gathering Moss which sounds like a wonderful book, I’m looking forward to reading The Signature of All Things, too,

  9. I was fortunate enough to get an early electronic copy of this book to read and review. I loved it. It consumed me for days until I had finished it, and I’m still thinking about it. Now I also want that moss book. A must for any gardener to read and enjoy.

  10. Thanks to Amy Stewart for sending me this way to Garden Rant and interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. “Moss is water made visible.” and that idea that perfectionism is often what holds us hostage is incentive for me to be intrigued and read this book. Plus, no mention of twerking 😉

  11. So interesting. I am cataloging old Victorian scrapbooks of sea mosses that are in a museum archive. Thanks

  12. One for me and one for my neighbor with the moss garden, please! Ms. Gilbert won me over with “The Last American Man,” which is like hearing an amazing but true story over beers at your favorite bar. She loves her characters and it shows in the telling. Looking forward to this!

  13. I am really interested in checking out this book. It reminds me of a non-fiction book called The Species Seekers that talks about the lengths that people have gone to have their names last through history on a species they have discovered.

  14. I enjoy historical fiction and books about plants, thus this book sounds like one I would enjoy reading. Also, I find the concept of ‘moss is water made visible’ to be intriguing. Living in a part of the country where rainfall is not high, especially during this time of drought, makes it very apparent.

  15. Great interview! I pre-ordered the book and already have it! But now I can’t wait to read it. I love moss and would have loved to be a plant finder. I have a 5 foot long low boulder in my right away that is covered with moss. I love the way it turns bright green after it has rained. I planted autumn fern, saliva greggi and blue daze around it and there are several kinds of daffodils that do well in a warm humid climate planted amongst the saliva. It sits between to 100 year old sycamores. Now I am off to look up Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer book called Gathering Moss : ) Thank you!

  16. I just signed up for a course at Coursera: What A Plant Knows, and I’d LOVE to win a copy of this book. Ever since I read a news story about a man who got hit on the head with a gladiola bulb I’ve thought that botanical fiction was the way to go.

  17. Love the “water made visible” quote too. Sounds like a great read. Laurin-I have a similar thing going on with a large moss-covered boulder near a creek that at this moment has quite a few intensely blue Lobelia siphilitica in bloom beside it. Gorgeous.

  18. What a great interview! I pre-ordered the book but the author’s own story of its development will add dimension when I get to it. (It’s next in my queue.) I’m already considering it as a holiday gift for members of my book club.

  19. I love books which mix fictional and real characters. And to throw plants/botany into the mix? I don’t think I can wait for Christmas to get this book. Sounds divine. I do love the “water made visible” quote – reminds me of cool streams & moss-covered rocks leading to them on a hot summer day.

  20. I relate to this character already. A woman, desiring to travel and explore, yet confined to the simplest things at home. I’m looking forward to this read.

  21. This sounds like a wonderful book to roll around in , for hours and hours,as one would roll around on a deep,green, limitless carpet of moss. I look forward to reading this; and the interview really piqued my interest!

  22. This books sounds great…just the kind that would take me through the winter.
    I’ve been re-reading V. Sackville-West for inspiration in gardening..so I need a shot of adventure like the lives described in this book.
    Great Post.

  23. Oh yes, please! This sounds like just the kind of novel I’d love. I really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and definitely need to read her other works.

  24. Living in the Pacific northwest at the onset of the rainy season this seems the perfect book to be reading. If I win the book, it shall be passed along my network of fellow avid readers.

  25. Loved your interview. Very curious now to stop rolling and read up on moss. Also very interested in Dr. Kimmerer’s work.

    From Kimmerer’s book, “A true moss or bryophyte is the most primitive of land plants. Mosses are often described by what they lack, in comparison to the more familiar higher plants. They lack flowers, fruits, and seeds and have no roots. They have no vascular system, no xylem and phloem to conduct water internally. they are the most simple of plants, and in their simplicity, elegant.”

    Sounds like a perfect read on a cold Minnesota night… and there’s plenty of those just around the corner.

  26. The female perfectionism part speaks to me. So many are held back because of this – fools rush in, what’ll so-and-so think – and all that. It is such a loss for the rest of us! Luckily, I am a fool. I can’t wait to read this book.

  27. I have read two rave reviews about this book in the NY Times. The first was written by Barbara Kingsolver who often wrutes similar books, drawing life-lessons out of scientific issues. Flight Behavior was one of her best, in my opinion. She studied Monarch butterflies and used them as an example of how climate change can destroy a species. So, Kingsolver’s positive review of Gilbert’s book carried a lot of weight with me.

    Can’t wait to read it! Please throw my name in the hat for this prize.

  28. I would love a copy of this book as I love moss and am trying to figure out how i can get it to grow in the cracks of my paver patio to smother out ugly weeds! I also love historical fiction.

  29. As a lover of moss and moss gardening, I try hard to convert those that have it (and wish they didn’t) to enjoy the beauty of what it offers. I also enjoy good historical fiction and have been looking forward to this novel – so winning it would be wonderful. Fingers are crossed that the novel is as good as the subject matter!

  30. I have anticipated this book’s release since the teasers started months ago. Elizabeth Gilbert and botany – great combination!

  31. I’ve had this book on hold at our library for some time — long waiting list! The idea of the book reminds me a bit of a wonderful read from some years ago called Letters From Yellowstone — I highly recommend it,

  32. Excellent interview – thank you! I, like so many others, am really looking forward to curling up with this book and a cup of tea.

  33. Looks to be a fabulous read, hope it’s a page turner. I love 19th century natural history-plants-animals, etc. It’s all become overly complicated ever since.

  34. Women were so underrated in the 19th century. At least that has improved somewhat.

    I’d love to have a copy of this book. It sounds just like my type of read. If I don’t get so lucky as to win one, I’ll ask the library to order it.

  35. Thanks to Andrea Wulf, through her two non-fiction recountings about plant exploration and the Founding Fathers’ gardens, a new interest has developed in botanic matters. Add Michael Pollan’s books on “The Botany of Desire,” etc. Now, a fictional work about a female shows how far we have come in accepting women as fully capable and expert in scientific pursuits. Bravo! I’m so glad the subject inspired her. Thanks for a good interview which answered questions on “Why this topic?”
    Grateful NJ Master Gardener

  36. I already have this book on my list and am so looking forward to reading it! I love that line – moss is water made visible – and am noticing more and more the moss in my garden!

  37. Who says moss is a sign of an unhealthy lawn? Divide it and transplant it so it IS the lawn! Not to mention its usefulness in fairy gardens, or as a pillow for reading a really good book about moss on a lovely fall day.

  38. Looking forward to this one! I’ve had a Moss Rock on my windowsill for a year — great idea for a low-care houseplant that comes in its own container.

  39. I am looking forward to reading this book. I had read Dr. Kimmerer’s book and highly recommend it; she is indeed both a fine scientist and fine writer.

  40. Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a winter weekend — curled up and being transported to a garden long ago and far away…

  41. The book now seems much more interesting. A have a moss book but its not as readable as this one seems. I water my moss when we go through a dry spell.

  42. Ooh, I can’t wait to get my hands on this one. While you’re waiting to see if you win the drawing, distract yourself by reading The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. It’s a true story about botany, adventure on the high seas, and a strong and intelligent woman in the 18th Century…amazing story and about time it’s told.

  43. I am an avid reader and gardener and I am just starting to learn about moss. I have read all of Elizabeth’s books and I know she has written this one with the depth the subject requires. Thank you for the opportunity to win her book. It would be a treasured book to add to my gardening book collection.

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